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Air Force Chief’s Open Support For The Rafale Deal Is A Sign Of Growing & Dangerous Politicization Of Indian Armed Forces Under Modi Regime

When the military comes to be perceived as politically partisan, democracy suffers heavily.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2015 decision to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets from France has become a huge political controversy in India. Congress President Rahul Gandhi has termed it a scam of huge proportion. The way Modi took the decisions on his own – bypassing previous negotiations over the number of aircrafts to be bought, the price per aircraft, and changing the Indian partner of the deal from the state-owned HAL to Anil Ambani’s newly formed company which hasno experience in aircraft manufacturing – is being questioned by other opposition parties as well  

In addition to opposition parties and the media in India, the press in France has also started reporting the scam.  Besides allegations of corruption and wrongdoings against the ruling political class in India, there are also reports of the then French President Hollande’s conflict of interest as his partner has produced a film with an Anil Ambani owned firm. 

Now, Air Chief Marshall BS Dhanoa has jumped into this political minefield by openly endorsing the controversial deal, going to the extent of saying that the 36 fighters will enable India to meet the two-front threats from China and Pakistan. Last week, his deputy, Vice Chief Air Marshall S.B. Deo also gave similar arguments to justify the purchase of Rafale fighters. It is surprising that these senior most officers of India’s air force are not being careful with respect to engaging themselves in a controversial arms deal, ever after the charge-sheeting of former air force chief SP Tyagi by the CBI for his alleged involvement in a chopper scam. Air Chief Marshall Dhanoa’s blanket statement in support of the Modi government’s contentiousdecision, is part of the larger trend of politicization of the armed forces, which India has been exposed to in recent years under PM Modi. 

Modi’s decision to involve a highly controversial retired Army Chief in the 2014 election campaign and to appoint him on his Council of Ministers gave a serious jolt to the Indian army’s carefully crafted image of being politically neutral. Singh has not only coined the abusive term ‘prestitute’ for the media, he has also been seen wearing the khaki uniform and participating in an RSS Shakha. Moreover, it is a common feature these days to witness retired army generals shouting and screaming on Indian TV, debating their own fraternity or their Pakistani counterparts.  

These retired generals often use their past military credentials to support the ruling party in a highly volatile political debate to create a binary of nationalists and anti-nationals. Many of them are not only just interested in crude publicity but also using the public platform in the hope of political appointments and to work in RSS funded research institutions. Some even work as agents of arms dealers and are engaged in creating a war hysteria to build public pressure in favour of buying more weapons. Though India has been buying more weapons than any other country and has spent more than $100 billion to buy arms in the last ten years, the public debates influenced by these retired officers give a false impression that India’s arms purchases are almost nil. Unfortunately, these greedy retired generals, in nexus with the ruling party, have been creating an environment of fear, and are on the forefront of branding the Indian military from being a professional force to a political one. When the military comes to be perceived as politically partisan, democracy suffers heavily. 

Modi government’s reiteration of the success of the ‘surgical strike’ in September 2016, and using it as a political weapon against the opposition have added to the on-going project of politicising the military.  Modi’s appointment of the present army chief was also controversial and criticized as he was handpicked for the post by superseding two outstanding army officers. Army Chief Bipin Rawat is also prone to making highly partisan remarks, particularly on Kashmir issue. Now, Air Chief Marshall Dhanoa’s jump to provide cover fire in support of the government’s Rafale deal raises serious doubts over the Modi’s government’s commitment to maintaining political neutrality of the Indian armed forces. 

It is critical for a professional armed force to be politicallyneutral, and the political class is solely responsible for providing an enabling environment for the same. However, to brand itself as the only ‘nationalist’ party in the country, and to be seen as the sole protector of the interest of the armed forces, the Modi government has beendraggingIndia’s professional military to be a part of the political game. The credit for the decision to conduct surgical strike has been given to ‘RSS teachings’, by none other than the Modi’s then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. The all-powerful RSS chief has even boasted that he can prepare an army within 3 days to fight for the country. Over and above, not only retired generals but even serving officers like Air Chief Marshall Dhanoa are being regularly used by the regime to give political statements supporting its controversial policies and decisions. 

For a developing democracy like India, it is fundamental to keep its armed forces strictly professional. The military as an institution should be designed only to protect the territorial integrity of a state, and its influence should not be used to achieve a political end. At this critical juncture, while hyper-nationalist Modi regime is facilitating and promoting politicization of the military, it is now for the officers, like Air Chief Marshall Dhanoa, to resist temptation and stay out of partisan mud not just for the sake of their professional integrity but also for the country.

The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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